That’s No Way to Get Along (Robert Wilkins/Rolling Stones)

This is a perfect example of the benefits and drawbacks of tablature, and also of how different the world was in those distant days before the internet. I had Stefan Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar book by the time I wacountry blues guitar books twelve or so, and although I always had trouble making sense of his quirky tablature, I learned how to play one of my favorite songs from it, John Hurt’s version of “Stagolee,” as well as Furry Lewis’s version of the same ballad. I also learned this song by Robert Wilkins — except, in those days we didn’t have the internet and I had no way of hearing Wilkins’s recording.

Wilkins recorded this in 1929, and it was reissued in the early 1960s on an Origin Jazz Library anthology, The Mississippi Blues 1927-1940, but I didn’t have that record and am not sure how I would have found it — it had been a major source for the previous generation of blues revivalists, but like the Harry Smith anthology of American folk music it had been largely forgotten by the time I came along. So I had Grossman’s tablature and his transcription of the lyrics, but didn’t know how the damn thing was supposed to sound. However…

What I did have, by maybe age thirteen or so, was the Rolling Stones’ BeggarBeggarsBanquetLPs Banquet LP, on which they played Wilkins’s Christian rewrite of his old blues song — by the 1960s Wilkins had become a minister and no longer sang blues, but in 1964 he recorded an album called Memphis Gospel Singer that included “Prodigal Son,” a retelling of the Bible story set to the guitar arrangement of “That’s No Way to Get Along.” I’m not sure how I made the connection, but I did, and I was always looking for ways to make my archaic tastes seem hipper and liked the idea of having at least a sort of Rolling Stones song in my repertoire, and in any case that was the only source I had. So with the Rolling Stones in my ears, I sat down with Grossman’s book and learned this song…

Except that when I finally got to hear the 1929 Wilkins recording, it’s much quirkier and moreRobert_Wilkins interesting than the way the Rolling Stones did “Prodigal Son,” not to mention the jury-rigged creation I extrapolated. If I were going to do it regularly, I’d go back and listen to Wilkins, but in the meanwhile here it is the way I’ve been doing it since the 1970s, a mix of Wilkins as filtered through the Stones and Grossman, with lyrics vaguely remembered from both sources.

As to the vagueness of my memory regarding the lyrics: I very rarely played in “open” tunings, and never really felt comfortable in them, but this was one of my introductions to the concept, and I eventually turned it into an instrumental, which I played for many years whenever someone requested something by John Fahey or Leo Kottke — I was not a fan of either of them, but wanted to be able to handle the requests, so I worked this up into a fast, noodling meditation in open D, which I titled “The Resurrection of the Great Sea Snail.”  If I really wanted to provide a sense of what I used to play, I could probably work that baby up again, but trust me, the world can live without it.

Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied (John Hurt)

This has always been one of my favorite John Hurt songs — it’s a murder ballad and a cheating song, in the best southern country tradition, but framed with a quietly philosophical fatalism that makes a striking contrast to the melodrama and violence of the central story.

I often teach this one as an example of Hurt’s brilliant way of getting around the guitar neck John Hurt— he played what sounded right to him, which sometimes meant holding the chords other people would hold,  but sometimes meant going his own way. This song has a more developed version of the same move he made in “Louis Collins,” taking the G chord that is the root of the song and moving it up two frets to get a high A note — which in this case means he is using the G shape, moved up to A, to play what for other people would be a C chord… that may sound confusing to non-guitarists, and even more confusing to guitarists, until you try it, at which point it sounds just fine, at least for “Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied.”

This was another I learned early on from Donald Garwood’s book, but it was many years before I really appreciated it, or figured out how to play it properly, and more years before it got to feeling or sounding anything like comfortable. Hurt was a deceptively great guitarist, who made everything sound simple and pretty, thereby disguising how hard it is to do what he did. I have the basics, more or less, but the grace and tone of his playing are a whole nother thing.

It’s like the experience of watching Fred Astaire dance, and feeling like you can do that, too, because it’s so relaxed and friendly, and trying it yourself, and it works — just like flying in a dream. I’ve been working on this for over forty years, and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way and consider the time very well spent. But one of the things I keep learning, over and over, is that there never was, is, or will be anyone else who sounds like John Hurt.

Louis Collins (Mississippi John Hurt)

This is another I learned from Donald Garwood’s book, which is long out of print but was fundamental to my early understanding of John Hurt’s playing — like, for example, his habit of getting a high A note while playing a G or C chord by just moving the chord up two frets. (Actually, that explanation is a bit misleading, since Hurt often didn’t  hold full chords and often sat on a low G bass when he played a C chord, so what he was moving tended to justJohn Hurt Today be the paired low and high G notes, which I think of as parts of C or G chords because I think that way.)

In any case, I don’t know if I would have learned “Louis Collins” as a kid if it hadn’t been in Garwood’s book, and I definitely owe him one, because it’s a great song. I miss having Peter Keane’s harmony on the chorus — we sang this together a lot of times over the years, and I hear him in my head, and I’m hoping we can maybe link up and film a few duets before this project is over, and if you don’t know his work, he’s worth checking out, on Youtube or various CDs.

As for Louis Collins, all we know about him is what Hurt sang. According to Hurt’s biographer, Philip Ratcliffe, he heard about the murder second-hand at best, vaguely recalling that it might have happened in Memphis and that Collins “was a great man. I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Louis. I got enough of the story to write the song.” Which means that all the most evocative lines, like the opening vignette of Collins’s mother weeping as he left home, were Hurt’s inventions. I don’t know why John Hurt is rarely listed alongside people like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly as a brilliant songwriter, but damn, he was great.

See See Rider (Mississippi John Hurt and others)

I don’t remember where, when, or how I first heard Mississippi John Hurt, but like a lot of people, I fell instantly in love with his gently expressive voice and the perfect swing and precision of his guitar playing. In retrospect, I think I misunderstood a lot of things about Hurt’s playing, one of the reasons being that I was fortunate enough to grow up in the era of tablature and blues guitar instruction books. The first book I had was Stefan Grossman’s Delta Blues Guitar, which my half-brother Dave left with me. At the time, there was nothing in that book I could learn, but itMasters of Instrumental Blues alerted me to the possibilities of tablature, and I shortly acquired Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar and Donald Garwood’s Masters of Instrumental Blues Guitar, both of which were much more helpful, in a large part because they included a lot of Hurt’s pieces.

I am forever indebted to those books, and have no idea what I would be doing today if I hadn’t got them, but I also have mixed feelings about them. Looking through the Garwood book, I’m struck by the extent to which my early John Hurt repertoire was guided by his tastes rather than my own, and my sense of Hurt’s playing was shaped by reading his and Grossman’s transcriptions rather than listening to Hurt’s playing. I’m grateful, because it gave me a sense of the instrument, but what I learned was Garfield’s or Grossman’s understanding of one way Hurt played a particular piece, and for some of these pieces that’s still what I have — it was decades before I sat down seriously with Hurt’s recordings and discovered how quirky and variable he could be. (For example, the way he played “Richlands Woman.”)

Which said, it was a good foundation for the rest of my life, and for better or worse it has stuck with me — I’ve probably heard hundreds of versions of “See See Rider” over the years, but the one I play and sing is still John Hurt’s, more or less as learned from Garwood’s book.

This was one of the earliest “blues” to become a huge, ubiquitous hit in both city and country — and I put blues in quotation marks because it is one of the many songs that very likely predated the use of that term for a song form or musical style, but helped define the style in the teens and twenties. Rainey SeeSeeRider labelIt was a hit for Ma Rainey in 1925, and one of the eternal mysteries of blues history is whether her version was adapted from a song that was already widespread in oral tradition, or whether her record was so popular and catchy that it spawned the vast range of rural, orally-transmitted versions that have been recorded since. Like a lot of folk-blues, the version in oral circulation wasn’t a cohesive song, it was just the key verse, “See, see rider, see what you done done/You made me love you, now your man done come.” Carl Sandburg wrote in his American Songbag about hearing it in a saloon in Austin, Texas, which he visited with John Lomax, sung by the owner, a “Mexican negro” named Martinez, but that lyric is mostly a train song that only gets around to the rider verse (transcribed by Sandburg as “C. C. Rider”) as an afterthought. Sandburg was writing in 1927 and includes another pair of verses collected considerably earlier by the amateur Texas folklorist Gates Thomas, so the song was clearly around in that region before Rainey’s record, and if I had to guess, I’d guess Hurt also learned it before it appeared on record.

The process of oral transmission led to the multiple interpretations of the title phrase, variously given as “See, See Rider,” “C.C. Rider,” and “Easy Rider.” I’d go with the first and last over the one with the initials, but that’s just me. In any case, the term “rider” for a sexual partner is pretty clear and evocative.

 

Relax Your Mind (Lead Belly)

I admired Lead Belly’s music more than I actually listened to it, which is why the few guitar arrangements I play of his come from Pete Seeger and Julius Lester’s book,Leadbelly's last sessions The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly. But the big exception to that rule was Leadbelly’s Last Sessions, Part Two. I liked that album so much that I can’t imagine why I never got Parts one, three, or four… but that’s how it was. I was particularly taken by the odder tracks — odd, that is, for those of us who thought of Lead Belly as an old-time folk-blues singer: my favorite was “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” (Cause the Girl in My Arms Isn’t You), and old pop waltz that he played magnificently, but I also liked the Hawaiian song (“It was silent on the island of Hawai’i…”), and the Pig Latin song, not to mention “Silver City Bound,” and “New Iberia,” and “Relax Your Mind.”

Honestly, I don’t know how much attention I would have paid to “Relax Your Mind” if I hadn’t had tablature for it, but I did, and it’s a pretty wonderful object. Frederic Ramsey, who recorded the Last Sessions, reported that Lead Belly wrote it at the behest of the National Automobile Safety Council, but they declined to used it, which, if true, just demonstrates a typical bureaucratic lack of imagination.

I like to think of this song as “Zen and the Art of Driving.” As Lead Belly said:

“A lot of people don’t know to relax — cause I used to didn’t relax, myself….  I made this song just on account of the people driving cars. You can’t drive a car and look all across the road. You got to look down the road, the way you going. Cause that’s caused so much trouble now. So many people lost, that’s true. Not relaxing.”

John Hardy (Carter Family)

I learned this song from at least three distinct sources: the first was, yet again, my favorite Cisco Houston LP, Cisco Houston Sings American Folk Songs; then I learned to play a guitar melody on the bass strings from tablature in The 12 String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly; autoharp bookand then my little sister got an autoharp and a book on how to play it, both of which I fairly quickly appropriated, and this was one of the first songs I learned from it, along with “Hard, Ain’t It Hard” and “Wildwood Flower.”

That repertoire suggests the author, Harry Taussig, associated the instrument with the Carter Family. At the time, I didn’t really know their music, except at second-, third-, and fourth-hand, and I associated the autoharp with Mike Seeger, who is still my favorite player on it — but oddly enough, the only sideman gig I’ve been called for in recent years is a Carter Family tribute band, the Wayworn Travelers, in which I play autoharp… and “John Hardy” is one of my featured numbers… though the Carters did not use the instrument on that particular song.

As for John Hardy, he was an actual person, and largely thanks to a researcher named John Garst, we now have a fair amount of information about him.John Hardy Hanging He was executed on January 19, 1894, for the killing of a man named Thomas Drews, and the story was reported in that day’s Wheeling, West Virginia, Register:

Hardy killed Drews… in a disagreement over a game of craps. Both were enamored of the same woman, and the latter proving the more favored lover, incurred Hardy’s envy, who seized the pretext of falling out in the game to work vengeance on Drews, who had shown himself equally expert in dice as in love, having won money from Hardy. Hardy drew his pistol, remarking he would kill him unless he refunded the money. Drews paid back part of the money, when Hardy shot, killing him.

The execution was apparently a major event, with three thousand spectators attending, and Hardy’s scaffold oration in the song’s last verse is in keeping with the newspaper report, which says, “He exhibited great nerve, attributed his downfall to whiskey, and said he had made peace with God…. He was baptised in the river this morning.”

Bury Me Beneath the Willow

I thought I got this from Cisco Houston, yet again, because his name was on the record jacket… but that was just Everest Records’ way of getting extra mileage from the Asch/Stinson catalog. Cisco Archive LPTheir Cisco Houston album was a collection of folk songs  recorded by Cisco with Woody Guthrie, usually with Woody singing lead, and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” also has Sonny Terry playing harmonica and whooping in the background.

Aside from that, I just went back and listened to their recording and find that I mostly sing different verses, which suggests that although I heard it on this record, I learned the lyric elsewhere. That’s not surprising at all, because it was a big favorite by the 200px-Carter_Family_1927Carter Family, and their records were picked up as sources for singers all over the South — and since Henry Whitter recorded it shortly before they did, it may have already been common before that. I assume the Carters were Woody’s source, since he sang so many of their songs, even though they sing different verses — closer to the ones I sing, as it happens. They also sing a different chorus, which I switched to last year after playing a gig with a Carter Family tribute band, the Wayworn Travelers: I had always sung “Bury me beneath the willow,” but the Carters sing “Bury me under the weeping willow,” and although that feels less “poetic” and doesn’t scan as well, I just found it felt right for me.

Goodnight, Irene (Lead Belly and others)

Another song I’ve always known — I’m sure we sang it in school, I’m sure we sang it at the children’s sing-along evenings in Woods Hole, I’m sure I heard it sung by Pete Seeger, and the Weavers, and lots of other people, before I knew who Lead Belly was. Along with “Tennessee Waltz,” “Goodnight, Irene” was one of the two biggest hits of 1950, reaching the Billboard magazine Top Ten in versions by the Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Ernest Tubb with Red Foley — for people who haven’t heard all of those, I recommend checking out the Tubb/Foley record, which sounds a good deal folkier leadbelly and marthathan the Weavers with their elegant string section.

Of course, once I heard Lead Belly’s version, I adopted it, and sing all the downbeat verses and “I’ll get you in my dreams” rather than “I’ll kiss you…” Some scholars have argued that he is actually saying “I’ll guess you in my dreams,” which they say is a regional/rural term meaning “imagine,” but the main reasoning behind that argument seems to be that they don’t like to think of him singing about “getting” a girl in his dreams, which they consider unromantic — a pretty damning commentary on the scholarly concept of romance.

There is also a scholarly discourse about the roots of the song, but it doesn’t really add much to the story. Basically, there were various Irene waltz sheet musicwaltzes called “Irene” in the 19th century, and a song called “Goodnight, Irene,” credited to the black pop/minstrel song composer Gussie Davis, but despite the fact that some authorities describe it as having a similar melody and some shared lyrics, none of them produce examples and others say quite authoritatively that it doesn’t. My relatively informed guess is that Leadbelly’s uncle, who taught him the song (or someone else, who passed it on to Lead Belly’s uncle), heard the Davis song — or heard of the Davis song — and came up with their own song, with the Davis song as more of an inspiration than a model, sharing only the title words. That was (and is) very common in oral cultures — someone will hear a song they like, and keep singing a snatch of it, and eventually it gets melded with other bits and pieces, and ends up bearing little or no resemblance to the song that inspired it. As for the bits and pieces, the “Sometimes I live in the country” verse was collected in Tennessee in 1909, so presumably was floating around the South by the turn of the century, and it wouldn’t surprise me if others were as well.

In any case, it’s a beautiful tune, with a lyric that both fits and undercuts the gentleness of the melody — having been a romantic young man myself, I recognize the pleasure of contemplating suicide if one’s love is rejected, and god knows it was a cliche of romantic fiction back to Goethe’s Werther, but most modern songwriters steer away from that particular romantic fantasy.

And for those who want to hear a snatch of the original, here it is:

Trouble In Mind (Richard M. Jones)

I have a vague memory of hearing some older guys — they were probably all of 16 or 17 — playing guitars on the steps of the Woods Hole Community Hall, and one of them sang this, and it sounded familiar, so I went home and found it… but I can’t remember if I found it in a songbook or on a record, or which songbook or record it would have been… and the whole memory may be wrong anyway.Jones, St

In any case this was one of the first blues songs I learned, so long ago that I don’t remember the details. I do remember seeing the composer’s name attached to it fairly early, Richard M. Jones, and not having the faintest idea who he was for a good many years after that.

That’s not surprising, because I was into folk or country blues, and Jones was very much an urbanite and a businessman. After playing piano with various groups around New Orleans, he moved to Chicago in 1919 to work as a music publisher and then as a record producer, in charge of the local wing of OKeh records “race” division, where he had the idea of bringing Louis Armstrong into the studio as leader of a small group, the legendary “Hot Five.”

Jones also made dozens (maybe hundreds) of records with various female blues singers, accompanying them on piano and often providing material, most famously “Trouble In Mind,” which he first recorded in 1924 with Thelma La Vizzo (an otherwise unknown singer) and again in 1927 with Bertha “Chippie” Hill singing and Armstrong playing cornet. Though he recorded it in Chicago, the lyric places it in Louisiana with the reference to the 219 train, which ran from New Orleans into Texas.

The song has been recorded by hundreds of artists, from blues singers like Victoria Spivey and Georgia White to Bob Wills, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and the Everly Brothers. I probably had Big Bill Broonzy’s version fairly early, and certainly had Otis Spann doing it on his Archive of Folk Music LP — tCisco ain't got no homehough I can’t remember ever listening to the Spann record, since I was totally into guitar, except for Memphis Slim — and probably had the Brownie and Sonny LP in that series as well… but I’m guessing a more likely candidate was, once again, Cisco Houston. I have no recollection of his version, but find that he recorded it on an album that I listened to a lot in my distant youth.

In any case, “Trouble in Mind” would have been my introduction to the golden age of blues as black pop music, along with “In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down” — though I would have been horrified if anyone had described it that way, because I thought of it as an old folk blues, the sort of thing guitarists played outside their rural shacks… which it was, too, because guitarists all over the South picked up songs from the urban recording stars and both of those songs quickly became ubiquitous in country and city alike.

Rye Whiskey

I’m pretty sure I learned this from Pete Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads songbook, which has it on page 69, accompanied by a couple of  drawings of stereotyped hillbillies and the note, “A famous late-at-night howler.” American Favorite balladsSeeger lists his source as John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs, which is apparently the first documented source, but the song was known all over the South and Southwest, and far beyond that if one counts the numerous variants, like “Wagoner’s Lad” and “Jack of Diamonds” — the latter being essentially the same song, about the same lifestyle, with emphasis on the card playing rather than the whiskey. I could also count “The Cuckoo,” which I recorded early in this project, and “Kentucky Moonshiner,” which I’ll probably get to at some point — all are dipped from the same deep pool of floating verses, modified to fit tastes, situations, or the quirks of memory.

As to the guitar arrangement: I’ve been saying for years that the point of learning how to play the guitar style of Joseph Spence, the Bahamian master who is one of my favorite musicians ever, was not so much to play his music as to break old habits and come up with new approaches to other songs… but this is one of the first times I’ve put that into practice in an obvious way. It doesn’t sound all that much like Spence, but the guitar vocabulary is straight out of his bag, and I’m really happy with how it came together.

Redemption RyeI started singing this when I was a kid, having only the vaguest idea about what rye whiskey might be, and continued singing it on occasion as I aged and began drinking Irish, then Scotch, then Bourbon and other whiskeys… but it was only a few years ago that I consciously tasted rye, and (due to a recommendation from Marty’s Liquors in Newton, based on my stated preference for Laphroig, which was getting priced out of my range) made it my regular choice in the high-proof brown category. As far as I can recall, I have only drunk the branded varieties and my moonshine experience is limited to wheat and corn whiskeys, but I am open to broader experience in this field, should anyone care to take my further education in hand.

I will admit one cavil: why, given the option of the ocean being whiskey and oneself being a duck, would one bother to dive to the bottom, much less to remain there, rather than simply sipping at will from the surface while bobbing pleasantly along?